Recently it was announced in a news report that the Episcopal Church is considering going gender-neutral when it comes to God. A committee was formed to review the best way to amend the Book of Common Prayer, removing any exclusively male language from the text, both in reference to God and humankind (not mankind) as a whole. If a change were to be made in the Book of Common Prayer, this would be monumental, considering such a decision would require a majority of votes in two consecutive General Conventions. Church leaders feel that by reaching such a decision, more young people would be reached for the gospel, and spiritual growth would flourish within the individual congregations.
As a Mormon feminist reading about this, I felt a flood of feelings come over me; some positive and others not so much. Once when I was Relief Society chorister (this was a long time ago), I got called into the Bishop’s office for changing the words to a song in order to make it more gender inclusive, so I can certainly understand the need. Just think, for instance, how much nicer it would be to sing “all” instead of “men” as inclusive of “all people.” As for the “male God” part, we do have a song where we acknowledge Heavenly Mother and in another song, we mention our Heavenly Parents. While we could do (much, much) better, I remain satisfied in knowing that She is acknowledged in at least a couple of our hymns.
Regarding the gender neutral position pertaining to God, I have mixed feelings. And I actually have good reasons for feeling this way. For two years of my life, I studied in a liberal Protestant seminary where we were required to use gender neutral language in our papers in reference to God. I cannot tell you how many times I wrote “God in Godself” throughout my papers. The one exception to the rule was this: if we referenced God as “He” in one sentence, we had to reference God as “She” in the next. No, I am not joking; those were the rules, and so one can reasonably assume that this is what students are being taught in “progressive” Protestant seminaries, the Episcopal denomination included.
The purpose in doing so was to promote gender equality and (human and divine) gender justice. And while the intention behind this thinking is very noble, it causes some issues for me, specifically in reference to the divine. In defense of this thinking, I will add that having been raised with an exclusively male deity — Father God, who could often be very scary, unpredictable, and was always angry – the possibility of acknowledging the feminine aspect of divinity was both uncomfortable, and at the same time, liberating. But it did very little for my personal spirituality. And I still walked out of seminary questioning whether or not God was even real, even if I vowed never to refer to God as “He” again.
So imagine my surprise when I learned – firsthand, and then later through the LDS Church – about Heavenly Mother! Yes, we have a Mother in Heaven, and while the gender neutral God is a step in the right direction, it does very little to bring the Sacred Feminine aspect of the Godhead to light. This is why I think liberal Protestants could learn something from Mormons, who have God in two persons – Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. In that respect, God is beyond gender, but gender neutrality can only go so far in affirming the fullness of divinity.
Mormons too, have a long way to go, but at least we recognize, in accordance with the Hebrew Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, that God is indeed one, just as humankind was created in God’s image – male and female; and reflect that divine image through marriage, whereby which husband and wife become united as “one flesh” and become co-creators with God (a very Jewish concept!). That said, certainly gender inclusive language in reference to divinity could help in affirming non-traditional views on gender and relationships, but such would be a topic for another discussion.
Which brings me to another point – the Holy Spirit? Growing up, I always heard the Holy Spirit referred to “He,” but in my seminary training, I learned that the Holy Spirit—Chokmah, or Lady Wisdom – is referenced in the feminine throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (example: Proverbs 8). This understandably left me conflicted for the longest time, especially as I learned about Heavenly Mother, but would hear a completely different message at church. Certainly the Holy Spirit – as pure spirit – could be gender neutral, but this too, I believe, misses the whole point.
One day, the answer came to me as I was reading the Book of Mormon, and I have to say it was quite a personal revelation. In I Nephi 11:11, Nephi is conversing directly with the Holy Spirit concerning his father Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life, – which is sacred feminine imagery – and the Holy Spirit appears to him “in the form of a man…as a man speaketh with another.” Here the reader is shown the male aspect of the Holy Spirit – which I have since realized is the Spirit of Heavenly Father. This would mean Chokmah (Lady Wisdom of the Proverbs) is the Spirit of Heavenly Mother. Both Father and Mother each have their own respective Spirit. To overlook this aspect in favor of a gender neutral Holy Spirit would only weaken this understanding – along with the power it manifests when Heavenly Parents work together as one, collectively.
While I understand this viewpoint will require a ‘quantum leap’ in faith for the reader – and possibly even the acceptance of a new set of scriptures for non-Mormons – perhaps one can begin to see my point that a gender neutral language in reference to divinity completely misses the point. It lessens the power of divinity, which if fully embraced could lead to a whole new understanding of the divine nature. As women, it is embracing our Mother in Heaven that we begin to understand ourselves and our relationship to divinity. Men can begin to embrace the motherly aspects of God too, which is something we all need.
Consider this for just a moment. When the Scriptures tell us that “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18), what could this possibly mean? Abraham saw an apparition of three mysterious men. Moses saw God’s backside! Joseph Smith saw God the Father. And, yes, even though it’s not presently acknowledged by the Church, Heavenly Mother has made quite a few appearances Herself. But the whole point is this- no one in the history of humanity has seen our Heavenly Parents together! Such an appearance would manifest the fullness of divinity, which nobody has seen.
Reference: Caitlyn Richard. “Episcopal Church Considers Making God Gender Neutral” July 6, 2018: Fox News Report. Accessed online.